After completing my first hikes in the Argentinean side of Patagonia around Mount Fitz Roy on my Latin American Road Trip, I traveled south to Torres del Paine, in the Chilean part of Patagonia. There I would continue the adventure by hiking the “W” trek in the Torres del Paine National Park. “The W”, as commonly called there, is one of the most impressive hikes I have ever done (as the son of a mountain Guide, I hope that gives you a good reference point!)
The starting town for this trek is Puerto Natales in Chile, a 5 hour bus ride from El Calafate, Argentina. The first thing you notice when you arrive in Puerto Natales, is how much stronger the sun is. You are indeed getting closer to Tierra de Fuego, and the southernmost part of Latin America.
Upon a friend’s recommendation, I chose to stay at the Erratic Rock hostel and wasn’t disappointed: an eco-friendly hostel with efforts to recycle, a total ban on plastic bags, and a home-made breakfast cooked for you in the morning in the early hours before you head out to Torres del Paine for the trek.
I roughly spent an afternoon preparing for the trek:
- – buying the bus ticket to Torres del Paine National Park: I recommend you buy it as soon as you arrive in town as you need to get it from the same bus station, located a bit outside of downtown and at the top of a hill, so you may not want to go back up there just to buy a ticket
- – information about lodges and trail conditions in the park: you can book your nights along the W trek in lodges in order to avoid carrying all the camping equipment (quite convenient when you trek alone, as you don’t have any buddies to share the weight of the tent, mats, stoves etc.) I chose this option. There are two companies in charge of the lodges: Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur. However, in April, because the path is less crowded, there is no need for booking the lodges in advance and you can just show up there and get a meal and a bunk bed
- – grocery shopping: there are plenty of local shops on the main street next to Plaza 1 de Mayo, so I chose to buy there as much as possible, as the large supermarket (Unimarc) doesn’t support the local economy, and isn’t very nice anyway (the products you will find there are really not the best)
Here are some useful tips I gathered doing this preparation phase:
- – In order to prepare your backpack for the extremely unpredictable (and often wet) weather in TDP, you can use a large trash bag as an internal liner to put all your clothes and anything sensitive to water. If you are rained on in Patagonia, the external rain cover for your bag won’t be enough, and remember that very strong winds can blow too (sometimes up to 70km/h or more) and that this rain cover will just fly away, torn off by the gusts of wind, or at best drag you as a parachute!
- – Also, some folks will tell you that your feet will get wet and that you shouldn’t try to stay dry during the trek, and to just embrace wetness and jump in the first puddle you see to get used to it. Sorry, but as the son of a mountain Guide, I can only tell you one thing: the longer you can keep your feet dry, the better your experience will be! I have strong leather hiking shoes in Gore Tex, meant to mount ice crampons for glacier hiking, and with such shoes, you can walk in a relatively small stream of water, or mudd, without your feet getting wet. And sure, there WILL be muddy puddles in Torres del Paine (or entire fields of mud, right in the middle of your path, which you will have to navigate through!)
During 6 days, I managed not to have my feet wet at all and enjoyed the dryness (and nice smell) of my shoes interiors, every minute of my hikes! It will also reduce your risks of blisters, as wet socks aren’t good to prevent them. Keeping your feet dry can change your entire experience, but there is no secret: if you have good gear, you won’t even need to think too much about it. If you have entry-level gear, you will be stressed about staying out of water and muddy puddles, and maybe in that case you can decide (and I would probably do this too) that worrying about it isn’t worth the extra brain space, and just enjoy your trek, whether your feet are wet or dry!
The W trek
The next morning, I headed out to Torres Del Paine. Here is a rough breakdown of my itinerary with some photos and videos corresponding to each day.
NB: I organized my itinerary this way as I couldn’t camp (not carrying all the cooking and camping equipment) and this implies one or two large walking days, which you may not want to do if you don’t have an extensive hiking experience or level of endurance.
Day1 – Administración – Paine Grande Lodge
I chose to start the W trek by adding “the tail” to it: a 5-hour trek that takes you progressively into the Torres del Paine Park, with amazing views of the range slowly unfolding before your eyes. Instead of taking the catamaran, enjoy a nice warm up!
The sunset that night, and sunrise the next morning on Cuernos del Paine were absolutely fantastic, and even though I am trying to stay away from the usual sunset shots, I had to share those :)
The next morning’s sunrise on Cuernos del Paine was a real treat, with amazing pink hues:
Day 2 – Paine Grande to Glaciar Grey, and back to Refugio Grey
The next morning, I went straight up past Refugio Grey on the trail for the O trek (which is going all around the entire range of TDP) in order to get close to Glaciar Grey.
I stopped at the second suspension bridge, more or less at the level of the Campamento Las Guardas. Glaciar Grey is really impressive from up close when you cross the second suspension bridge, and I highly recommend going up to that point even if you do not plan on doing the O circuit.
I got all excited at crossing the suspension bridges! And true enough, they were impressive, even if I’m not prone at all to vertigo from my practice of climbing.
The view on Glaciar Grey is simply stunning from there, and it is quite an intimidating experience, for a European who had never been that close to a glacier before. The silence is thick, and this adds to the magical atmosphere of the place, as you stare voiceless at the seracs of the glacier:
Those quiet landscapes were perfect for a good meditation session, which I did a lot in Torres del Paine.
Day 3 – Refugio Grey to Refugio Cuernos
This is the big day I mentioned. Some people I met at Puerto Natales wanted to tag along with me and when I mentioned my plan, they felt they didn’t want to do such a big day of hiking. I think it is fine if you have some previous hiking experience, as the path is mostly going down. Here’s a little video I made half-way upon reaching the Paine Grande Lodge again: (the videos are en Français pour changer un peu!)
Day 4 – Vale Francés (Canceled)
On that day, I was supposed to backtrack a bit, in order go up Vale Francés, one of the most beautiful valleys of the park. However, as the weather was getting worse and cloudier, the cloud ceiling was so low that it wasn’t worth backtracking on the quite steep path to the entrance of the valley from Refugio Cuernos. I wouldn’t have seen a thing anyway.
Instead, I therefore continued onto:
Day 4 – Refugio Cuernos to Refugio Chileno
This one is also said to be a big day of hiking because the trail is going up quite a bit. I was in the rhythm and in the flow of my thoughts, enjoying the landscape and I didn’t see time go by. It sure is steeper than the previous days, but I left at 9am and arrived at 1pm at Chileno, so overall this was rather a short day in my books!
Another short video from that day:
Day 5 – sunrise (or not) at the Torres then back down to Refugio Torres
The plan for the next morning was to get up super early (4.30 am) and hike up to Mirador de Las Torres in order to see the sunrise on Las Torres, said to cast incredible hues of pink and red on the peaks. However, a snow storm started during the night, and everything was white and cloudy at 5am. I therefore stayed in (hiking on a ridge alone in the dark AND in the snow isn’t the safest thing, plus with the clouds there was really no point). I finally went up at 11am, only to find the lake still with snow, and the Torres still in the clouds… It was a nice view, but not what I expected, and quite cold:
There was no point staying one more night at Chileno as the next morning would have a similar weather, so I went back down to Refugio Torres:
For my last night in the park, I tried to hack the system and find a ride by hitch hiking to Campamiento Lago Pehoe, hoping to sleep there. But at 5pm in TDP, there aren’t any cars anymore, and night falls quickly. With jaguars all overthe area, walking alone in the dark for 4 hours isn’t the best idea and was not safe at all.
I therefore went back to Regugio Torres for the night and enjoyed the sunrise on the Towers from below the next morning:
Day 6 – back to Puerto Natales (stop at Campamiento Pehoe for the view)
Catching the morning bus that was bringing the daily hikers all the way to Administracion where I’d started six days earlier, I got off at Campamento Lago Pehoe and had a couple of hours to enjoy the view on the Lake and Torres del Paine. I headed back to Puerto Natales with the last buses leaving the park that day. I really recommend going there for this view, one of the best of the entire park.
But it can be extremely windy, Patagonia style, as you will see in the video!
Have you been to Torres del Paine and done the W or the O trek? What was your experience? Do you have any other tips?
Or has this article made you want to go?